Nato countries are expected to agree at Thursday’s emergency summit of the western military alliance to provide special kit to protect Ukraine against any chemical, biological or nuclear attacks launched by Russia.
Jens Stoltenberg, the organisation’s secretary general, also told Russia to stop engaging in “nuclear sabre-rattling” and repeated warnings that the Kremlin could be seeking “a pretext” for using chemical weapon as the war heads into a second month.
“I expect allies will agree to provide additional support” including “equipment to help Ukraine protect against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats”, he said the day before the meeting.
The Nato chief declined to spell out exactly what would be supplied, though it is likely to include gas masks and protective suits. But his statement reflects heightened uncertainty across alliance members about Russian intentions as the invasion of Ukraine has stalled on multiple fronts.
Stoltenberg described Russian comments that it would be willing to deploy nuclear weapons if Nato directly entered the conflict as “dangerous and … irresponsible”. On Tuesday, Dimitry Peskov, the spokesperson for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, had said nuclear arms could be used if Moscow thought it faced an “existential threat”.
The secretary general acknowledged that Nato was “concerned about the possibility of use of chemical weapons or biological weapons” in Ukraine, partly because of “false claims that Ukraine, supported by Nato allies, [is] producing and preparing for the use of chemical weapons”.
No firm evidence has been produced to justify the Russian statements, but Stoltenberg said such accusations “may be a way for them to, in a way, try to create the pretext for their use of chemical weapons” – echoing an almost identical warning made by the US president, Joe Biden, overnight before travelling to Europe.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, will address Biden, the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, and the other Nato leaders assembling in Brussels on Thursday morning via video link, in an emergency meeting to discuss further military responses to the ongoing crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion last month.
Poland is expected to present a proposal for a multinational peacekeeping mission in Ukraine at the meeting. But there is no support from the US or many other allies for a no-fly zone or any other direct Nato intervention, despite the increasingly bloody fighting.
Stoltenberg was quick to play down any possibility of direct military involvement. “Nato will not send troops into Ukraine,” the secretary general said, drawing a distinction between member countries supplying anti-tank and other arms to Kyiv and the deployment of any forces on the ground.
“When it comes to forces, Nato is not part of the conflict. We provide support to Ukraine but we’re not part of the conflict. We help Ukraine with upholding the right for self-defence, which is enshrined in the UN charter,” the secretary general said, suggesting it was unlikely the Polish proposal would develop further for now.
The Kremlin has warned Nato countries not to deploy peacekeepers to Ukraine, saying that could lead to a direct confrontation between Russia and Nato.
A deployment would be a “reckless and extremely dangerous decision”, Peskov said during a telephone call with journalists on Wednesday.
“A special military operation is going on, and any possible contact by our troops with Nato troops can lead to quite clear consequences that would be hard to repair,” Peskov said.
The Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, had previously called western military shipments to Ukraine “legitimate military targets”, suggesting that Russia could be on the verge of entering a direct confrontation with Nato countries sending lethal aid to Ukraine.
But so far Russia has not directly targeted the shipments, western officials have said.
Russia’s placement of sophisticated anti-air defences in Belarus and military deployments to the Black Sea ahead of its invasion of Ukraine were also seen by analysts as a signal to western countries not to intervene in the conflict. Putin also held military drills of the Russia’s strategic nuclear forces in late February.
Nato leaders are also expected on Thursday to agree to increase troop deployments on its eastern flank with the creation of four new multinational battlegroups in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary to protect against any sudden Russian attack, alongside those already established in Poland and the Baltic states.
Discussions will also take place about increasing the military presence near Russia even further still, as part of a process that will conclude at Nato’s scheduled annual summit in June. “I expect a part of that will be a significant increase of our presence on the ground in the eastern part of the alliance for the long term,” Stoltenberg added.
The Nato meeting will be one of a string of leaders’ gatherings held in Brussels on Thursday. G7 and EU leaders are also holding meetings later in the day, with Biden a guest at the EU summit. The other meetings are likely to focus on trying to agree a further toughening of economic sanctions.